Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Fish Story

Jonah 1
by Daniel Harrell

Epiphany, which commemorates the first revelation of Jesus to Gentiles (the Gentiles in this case being the magi), is the perfect time of the year to think about outreach and mission. Inasmuch Jesus was sent to the world as the embodiment of God, so the church is sent as the embodiment of Jesus to love and to serve and to grow his kingdom. Tonight at our potluck dinner we’re excited to share a new outreach initiative we’re thinking about. Outreach is the only reason that the church remains on earth. Everything else we do is just a preview of heaven. Granted, the earthbound nature of mission does make it rough. It was deadly for Jesus—and for much of the New Testament church and many Christians since. Ask any missionary, and if they’re honest, they’ll have all kinds of adversity to tell you about. The same goes for any Christian who steps it up and steps out for the sake of the gospel. Just try to do what Jesus says: love an enemy, serve the poor, speak the truth, share the gospel, forgive an abuser, give away money, fight for justice—you’ll find it can be a tough way to live.

It was hard for the Old Testament prophets too. Moses got blasted constantly by his own people. Elijah was hunted down by the government and put on a hit list. Jeremiah was exiled to Babylon. Daniel got tossed into a lions’ den. No wonder that when the word of the Lord came to Jonah he ran for his life. God told him to go at once to Nineveh and forecast its doom on account of their wickedness. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the ancient nemesis of Israel’s northern kingdom. Sort of like Green Bay is to Minneapolis. Any good Hebrew would have delighted in their downfall, just as every good Vikings fan relished the fall of the Packers last Sunday. But Jonah said no. Admittedly, if my intent is to preach about mission and outreach, Jonah is an odd choice. Consider it a bit of unfinished water business—if you’ll recall all those sermons last fall. I did leave Jonah’s watery adventure out of the rotation. Consider it also a foretaste of Easter. Comparing himself to Jonah, Jesus said: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”

Given Jonah’s disobedience and cowardice, it is strange to have Jesus make the comparison. Jonah reminds me more of that cruise ship captain in the news this week. Reportedly wanting to show off his $450M ocean liner to gawkers on shore, he steered off course, hit a reef and ruptured the hull of his ship. As water gushed in and the boat listed, passengers panicked including the captain who abandoned ship for the safety of a lifeboat. Or as he explained it, he accidently tripped and fell into a lifeboat when the ship tipped to its side. A furious Coast Guard officer radioed the captain to get his butt back on board—using an Italian bad word that is now available all across the country on handbags and espresso cups. One Italian newspaper claimed the episode contrasted the “two souls of Italy” —one of them represented by a “cowardly fellow who flees his own responsibilities, both as a man and as an official” and the other by a man who works to get the coward to do his job.

Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet to flee his responsibility. The only one to refuse an assignment. The only prophet to reject a direct command from God. Like an employee who skips out early to avoid an unwelcome assignment, or a soldier who goes AWOL to avoid following an order, Jonah flees the word of the Lord. He runs in the opposite direction from Nineveh to the seaside city of Joppa where he finds what was known as a “Tarshish ship,” the ancient equivalent to a modern day ocean liner. We read that Jonah “paid his fare”, but the Hebrew actually says he “paid her fare,” meaning he bought the whole boat. He didn’t want this cruise ship making any stops along the way. Of course being a prophet and knowing the Lord as he did, it’s difficult to imagine where Jonah thought he could hide. As the Psalmist sings, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? … If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there… your hand shall hold me fast.” What for most reads as a psalm of consolation was for Jonah a psalm of calamity. He knew he was doomed.

Like any defied boss or disobeyed commander, the Lord could not countenance such insubordination on the part of his prophet. So God hurled a hurricane at Jonah’s boat, so furiously that the experienced sailors on board feared for their lives. They started hurling cargo overboard and praying to every god they could think of. Jonah, meanwhile, was somehow sleeping below deck. The picture reminds me of the young son of friends who would fall fast asleep every Fourth of July once the fireworks commenced. It was how he dealt with the stress. It also reminds me of Jesus asleep in a boat as a storm raged and threatened to sink his disciples—experienced sailors too. Like the sailors with Jonah, the disciples screamed at Jesus demanding to know why he didn’t seem to care that they drowned. What did they expect Jesus to do? The same thing the sailors and their captain expected from Jonah: “Wake up! Say a prayer! Maybe your God will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” Of course, Jonah, like Jesus, knew exactly how to stop the storm—Jesus much more directly, of course. This may also explain why each slept so soundly.

In ancient times bad weather was always somebody’s fault, so the sailors drew straws to see who was to blame. Once Jonah drew the short one, the sailors pounced on him for corroborating evidence: “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?” Jonah tells him he’s a Hebrew prophet. That he works for the God of heaven who created the sea and the land. And that he’s shirking his work. Leaving the scene. Hopping a lifeboat. Gone AWOL. Hearing this, the sailors became even more afraid. “What have you done?!” they shriek. You work for the God who made the ocean and you think you can escape God on the ocean? What kind of dumb prophet are you? They demand to know how he plans to placate his God, and Jonah tells them to throw him overboard. And what, make the sailors guilty of murder on top of harboring a fugitive? I always wonder why Jonah didn’t just dive in himself. But another way to read this is for Jonah to say, “Hand me over to the Lord.” Jonah finally surrenders.

Why couldn’t Jonah have just had them turn the boat around and take him to Nineveh? Wouldn’t that have made God happy? Like when Jesus tells that parable about two sons, each directed to go work the vineyard by their father. One son says yes, but then he doesn’t go. The other son says no, but then changes his mind and obeys. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus asked. The answer was the second son, whom Jesus commends. But apparently Jonah would rather die than change his mind and obey. The author has yet to reveal why—though if you’re curious you can skip ahead to chapter 4. Jonah says that he worships the Lord, but his actions betray a duplicity. The contrasting behavior of the godless sailors further the indictment. They pray while Jonah sleeps. They fear the Lord, Jonah rejects the Lord. The sailors are willing to do whatever God wants, as soon as they can figure it out. Jonah knows exactly what God wants, but cannot stand to be a part of it.

I was sharing with the Friday Morning Men’s Group this week how I ended up as a minister. I heard the call at a fraternity party of all places. But then again Jesus was something of a party guy. I can’t exactly say what happened. I hadn’t been drinking. I just got this sense that ministry was for me. I confirmed the notion with a couple of friends and mentors, and by the next afternoon had dropped my business major and picked up religion and Greek. My fraternity brothers were horrified. They’d thought me to be rather normal. But instead I was throwing away a budding and creative career in graphic design and marketing for sake of pot luck suppers and committee meetings? They did have a point. You don’t have to go to seminary or work in a church to do the work of the Lord. If anything, the Kingdom of God could probably do more, missionally speaking, with fewer pastors and more Christians viewing themselves as “ministers” in other vocations. As the apostle Paul exhorts us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, working for the Lord and not for people.” When our jobs are done before God, they have their own integrity apart from anything else they might accomplish, for the labor itself brings glory to the Lord. I could do whatever career I wanted for the Lord. Had I been drinking? People do make a lot of decisions when in their 20s that we really shouldn’t be allowed to make.

Maybe my fraternity brothers were right. So I delayed going to seminary, just to be sure. I could still do plenty of ministry in the meantime. In fact, I’d been invited to lead a small group as part of a Christian fellowship conference. Unfortunately, the conference fell on the same weekend as my university graduation. But the girl I was dating was going to the conference, and delaying seminary was going to give me more time to spend with her. So I decided to have the university just mail me my diploma. My parents tried to talk me out of it; said they at least deserved a moment in the sun for putting me through school, but I’d made up my mind. Besides, in addition to becoming a pastor, God also told me that this woman could be the one. So my mom made me a cake with a little plastic graduate figurine on top and I ate a piece and that was basically it.

Up at the conference, the woman for me decided I wasn’t for her. I think she said God told her that. She was up for marrying an ad exec, but what woman in her right mind would ever opt to be a preacher’s wife? Rejected, I went back home to live with my parents who informed me that if I was going to live with them I would need to pay rent. With extra money each week if I wanted laundry. So now I needed to make some money. I tried my hand at the only thing I could find: selling dictionaries and Bible story books door-to-door.

My first day on the job I called on a mobile home and was greeted by this lowly housewife who politely agreed to hear my pitch. I was in the middle of it when her husband drove up in his pick-up, saw my car, came bursting through the door, caught me showing dictionaries to his wife and went full vent into a violent and jealous rampage. “I oughta kill you,” he shouted. He let loose such a string a expletives that I couldn’t help but suggest he might like one of my dictionaries, just to amend his vocabulary. Instead he went for his shotgun which was my cue to leave. Needless to say I didn’t sell a single book. I drove home to discover that the postman had unceremoniously delivered my college diploma into our mailbox. I pulled it out and stared at it and then it hit me: the best years of my life were now over. College was finished, my girlfriend was gone, my parents were charging me rent, my friends had moved on to lucrative careers while I had crazy husbands pointing shotguns at me, a pathetic peddler of books trying to make money for seminary in order to become a minister. Just throw me overboard and put us all out of our misery.

The sailors finally concede, but not without first praying to the Lord they’d never met and begging him not to hold this deed against them. Again, the pagan sailors display more reverence than Israel’s prophet. “Do not make us guilty of innocent blood;” they pray, “for it is you, O LORD, who has done as it pleased you.” Jonah knew this too. The sailors pitched him overboard and the storm stopped. Like with the disciples in the boat with Jesus: the storm terrified them all right, but Jesus stopping the storm scared the crap out them. Like the disciples, I imagine these sailors turning white as sheets, their eyes a-bug and their mouths agape as they say, “Oh-my-God!” Which really is the point of both stories.

And yet despite Jonah’s disobedience, God won’t let him drown. Instead, “the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” If the book ended here, you’d conclude that “to swallow” is the same as “to eat.” It wasn’t good enough for disobedient Jonah to drown. God wanted him digested too. But knowing the rest of the story, we know that what looked like Jonah’s demise was in fact his salvation. Which is why Jesus ties his own death to this story. And also why early Christians used the fish as a sign of their faith and stuck fish shaped bumper stickers on the back of their burros. Jesus called his resurrection the “sign of Jonah.” Even though Jonah rejected the Lord and disobeyed his commands, God saved him anyway. We’re left with this question: If salvation was the outcome of Jonah’s disobedience, what will things be like when he finally decides to obey?

For me it meant finally getting to seminary and into ministry where despite plenty of hardship, I’ve come out with more than my share of joy. I’m very grateful man for whom God has granted all sorts of grace as I’ve shared the lives of his people in this great mission we know as the church.

As we will see with Jonah, the grace that saves us does not absolve us of responsibility. But neither does it bully us into obedience. I like how the fifteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich envisioned grace as courtesy rather than coercion; as invitation rather than imposition. “Grace works with mercy,” she said, “by lifting up, rewarding, endlessly surpassing all that our loving and our travail deserves, spreading abroad and making plain the high abundance and largesse of God’s royal Lordship in his marvelous courtesy. … ” she said, “He comes to us, to the lowest part of our need. For he despises nothing of what he has made. … he surrounds us so tenderly while we are yet in our sins.” And even when we, like Jonah refuse the embrace, grace still surrounds us like a mighty ocean, until finally, grace swallows us whole and we really can’t refuse it anymore. 

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